The Stream
Filler Up

by Bamboo Dong, Feb 25th 2013

It's that glorious time of the season again—filler time! When all the one-season shows are slamming on the brakes and padding their dialogue until they can gear up for a mad dash towards the finish line. This is the part of the season where we get endless scenes about what color girls' underwear are, or cute girls eating hamburgers, or trips to the beach! And while it's great for the writers who get to dust off their ol' playbooks, it's torture for us reviewers whose notepads are just filled with doodles and ??????.

Alright, let's dive in!

#1 - Chihayafuru 2 [ep. 4-6]

Chihayafuru spends a lot of time on karuta and in tournaments, but it's the quiet moments that give this show such an emotional impact. The characters can spend hours focused on a game—and we can spend episodes watching them strategize how to take cards—but the real gems shine through in the pauses between the action. Watching Chihaya furrow her brow over a hand movement she made while taking a card, for instance. Or watching Taichi stare in defeat as he overhears Chihaya on the phone. None of these scenes involve dialogue or intense action, but they speak volumes for the characters, their stories, and their hopes.

In the episode that follows after the regional high school tournament, we get a really great scene between Chihaya and her mom, an interaction that, up until this moment, has been scant. And in fact, it's not because the series just hasn't been showing the parents, it's that they haven't been heavily involved in her life. It's a touching and almost sorrowful moment to hear her mother actually acknowledge this, and it fills another page in Chihaya's family life that's slowly been building throughout the two seasons. I daresay that had I not been in company, I would've cried when her mother says, “It's our job as parents to provide for you.”

To someone who hasn't seen the series, that sentence likely doesn't strike a chord or leave any impact. But to those who've seen this story unfold, both in terms of Chihaya's parents' pride in her karuta accomplishments, their investment in her sister, and the way Chihaya's come into her own adulthood as a talented karuta player, it's a really touching development. That's what makes Chihayafuru such a consistently good show—and the reason why so many fans are quick to rush to its defense when anyone says it's just a sports show. It spends more time showing the characters playing karuta than not, but its scenes off the mat make it one of the most endearing human dramas I've seen in a long time.

#2 - Space Brothers [ep. 43-45]

Even though you hope and wish that a show like Space Brothers wouldn't let anything horrible and tragic happen to one of the main characters, it has a way of creating suspense that doesn't let you rest for a second. Up until the very last second of Hibito's crisis, I was at the edge of my seat, wondering how in the world the scene was going to end. I was prepared for just about anything, but I had no idea what I was in for. What I ended up getting was more than satisfying, and it proved once again that Space Brothers has an incredible knack for making every story genuine and heartfelt.

Of course, for those who are watching Space Brothers more for Mutta than Hibito, they'll be happy that the series is resuming the Mutta story again, as it follows the JAXA astronauts to Houston. By the time the team donned their trademark blue jumpsuits, my eyes had mysteriously filled with liquid. After 45 episodes, that scene is well won, and it's a beautiful moment for both the characters on screen, and everyone watching. I can't wait to see how things unfold in Houston.

#3 - Polar Bear Cafe [ep. 42-45]

Every time I think Polar Bear Cafe can't get more tender or wise, it does something to completely surprise me. By now, I've watched over 15 hours of Polar Bear Cafe, and no episode has hit me as hard as the one where Panda receives some sudden news about Full-Time Panda. For the first time, we see a side to Panda that we (and his friends) have never seen before, and it brings a depth and understanding to the character that is deeply appreciated. Penguin's awkward ramble in response to the situation is wonderful as well, and we suddenly see that the friendships that have been forged at the cafe are anything but trivial.

Polar Bear Cafe has slowly been transforming itself over the seasons into a show that's as poignant as it is funny, and I'm so glad I've been along for the entire ride. Each new episode is better than the last, and I highly encourage people to give it a shot.

#4 - Maoyu [ep. 5-7]

The more I watch MAOYU, the more I enjoy it. This show is completely unlike anything I've watched before, and the way that it handles HUMANS VERSUS DEMONS!!! is so unique that it's become one of my favorites to watch every week. We've seen the Demon King run through the gamut of human innovation—crop rotation, potato farming, and most recently the moveable type press—but we also get a good glimpse at how personally involved she is in the resolution of this war. She's worked tirelessly up until this point to try and quell the war as quickly as possible, even sacrificing her people along the way. There's a quiet scene where she solemnly acknowledges the death of her people, and in that moment, the audience finally gets a sense of how tirelessly she works to achieve her goal.

Demon King is a rare breed of hero. Settling conflict through peaceful means is not new, not even for an anime, but props have to be given to the writers for making this type of problem solving actually engaging. Demon King's actions are incredibly thorough, which makes for writing that's always one step ahead of the viewer. Despite being the king of demons, she uses her vast knowledge and understanding of society to help humans, deftly manipulating their interests for her own noble goals. It's a method of conflict resolution that isn't often seen in popular media, and I applaud the producers for supporting a story as unconventional as MAOYU.

#5 - Tamako Market [ep. 4-7]

If I was baffled last month about the strange mash-up of stories that is Tamako Market, I'm even more baffled now. Whereas before, the slice-of-life to Talking Bird ratio was something like 60:40, it's now something like 80:20, making it that much more bizarre every time Dera is on screen. In fact, I'm now starting to regret that he even exists in the series, because the Bunny Mountain/mochi shop part of the show is beyond strong enough to stand on its own.

Most of the appeal of the series lies in Tamako, whose earnestness and drive to help those in her community makes this show radiate feel-good vibes. Whenever sales are down in Bunny Mountain, she has ideas to bring in more traffic. Almost always, this trickles down to the viewer in the form of a smile-worthy scene, like Tamako shaping limited edition mochi, or helping set up a haunted house in an empty shop. Nothing important ever really happens in the show, but people are made happy, and in return, we're made happy.

Then you have Dera, who's part sci-fi plot device, part comic relief. At the end of the seventh episode, there's a hint that we might see a little more of his life in regards to the prince he serves, but for the most part, he's been relegated to just an oddity. His spot in the comedy limelight has dissipated, and even his tenure as a self-proclaimed love guru has waned, leaving him as just the fat talking bird that keeps interrupting this slice-of-life show. If the entire show had kept up the offbeat quirkiness of the first couple of episodes, Dera would've continued to be a welcome addition to the series, but now he definitely feels out of place. I'm still enjoying this show, primarily for Tamako, but I hope the series figures out quickly what it wants to be.

#6 - Oreshura [ep. 5-7]

Harem anime take note—there is a way of making harem shows that doesn't make you want to punch your face in. Oreshura is proof of that. It has everything that makes harem anime commercially successful—a bunch of girls, and… well, I guess that's the only thing you need. But missing from the usual slop are several key annoyances: needy, desperate women; cooking contests; that-weird-little-sister-character-who-is-super-feisty-and-too-young-but-still-wants-to-marry-the-guy-anyway; and blissful ignorance that they are walking clichés.

Oreshura is like a harem show for anime fans who know what they're watching is sometimes kind of crappy and clichéd, but aren't apologetic about what they like. I mean, the show is called, My Girlfriend and My Childhood Friend Fight Too Much. It makes for a funny show that manages to side-step a lot of the usual contrivances. The fact that the girls who are all vying for main dude Eita's attention are tongue-in-cheek about their rivalry helps, as is Masuzu's security in her quasi-relationship. There's a good scene where Masuzu walks in on Chiwa with her head on Eita's arm, and Chiwa just says, “Don't worry, I'm just practicing for when I have a boyfriend.”

In these episodes, we're also introduced to That Girl From the Past Who Has Promised Her Hand in Marriage, only Oreshura goes somewhere cheeky with it by making her an accomplice to Eita's delusional alterego, Burning Fighting Fighter. Admittedly, I was pretty skeptical about Oreshura for quite a few episodes, but I've really grown to enjoy it. Yeah, it kind of panders to nerds with its Jojo references and its wink-wink self-awareness, but it uses both effectively. This is turning out to be a pretty fun show.

#7 - Robotics;Notes [ep. 15-16]

As frustrated as I get with the awkward mix of sci-fi and let's-build-a-robot that is Robotics;Notes, the show has always been successful in getting me to tune in week after week. Each aspect of the show leaves just enough of a trail of suspense for me to want to follow it, and even though there are moments I wish the show wouldn't dump me back at a story arc I care less about, I nevertheless find myself inevitably sucked into whatever scene I'm watching.

It's hard not to be gripped, especially considering the series has taken us to some dark, unexpected places. I wasn't expecting the resolution we got with the Eiri story, and I sure as heck wasn't expecting the scene we got with Misaki. By that same token, though, I'm not sure all of these plot twists always transpire organically. They're all interesting, but sometimes it feels like a couple of steps were skipped in between. Like I said, though, this show has always lured me into watching the next episode, and now is no different from other times. I just hope something satisfying comes out of the last chunk of episodes.

#8 - Psycho-Pass [ep. 15-18]

There's been some fuss online about how the quality of Psycho Pass has dipped precariously as of late. And yeah, it's pretty bad. There are some egregious continuity errors in the latest episode that make you wonder if the QA guy was asleep at his desk, but I don't want to spend too much time dwelling on it. What I'm more interested in talking about is the Sybil System. Up until now, I had fiercely defended its presence in the story like a mother lion defending her cub, and now I feel like it kind of just bit my hand. I had been intrigued by it from the start (when audiences were led to question, "why does society let this exist?"), to its current state now (when the characters are led to question, "how did we get to this point?"). Now that we've actually gotten a glimpse into what the Sybil System actually is, things are even more disturbing.

But—I have to eat my words here. And that's because—purely subjectively—I think the "real" truth behind the Sybil System is really dumb. I've been saying this whole time that the Sybil System is a dark, pessimistic look at how society could swirl into demise by criminalizing (and in turn protecting against) psychological disorders and emotional aberrations. And even though it was crazy and outlandish, it was still a possible trajectory of how humans could devolve. But now that we know what the Sybil System really is? Preposterous. Absurd. And I feel dumb for giving the series the benefit of the doubt that the twist wouldn't be totally cuckoo. It's like turning over all the fire engine keys in America over to arsonists. It just doesn't make sense.

So here we have two things— a continuation of a highly suspenseful and action-soaked police thriller, complete with rogue cops and criminal masterminds—and a total devaluation of the very premise that the series revolves around. On the one hand, I'm a little put off by the "twist" because I think it's irrational, but on the other hand, I'm in too deep. I need a resolution now.

#9 - Kotoura-san [ep. 4-6]

Well, that was a surprise. Kotoura-san started out as a pretty tragic dramedy, complete with girls screaming and crying in the rain, and getting relentlessly bullied in school… and ended up as a fluffy rom-com. Having not read the manga, I didn't know what to expect, but I certainly wasn't expecting this.

Haruka, to bring everyone up to speed, is a lonely gal who was born with a giant burden—the ability to read minds… and the inability to keep her mouth shut about the thoughts she reads. Because of her propensity to blurt out the secrets of everyone around her, she's made a lot of enemies in her lifetime, including her parents. At her new school, though, she finally makes friends with the folks in the ESP Research Club, as well as her classmate (and love interest) Yoshihisa. After she gets him involved in a fight, though, she changes her phone number, moves, and leaves school.

Tragic, right? Well, until Yoshihisa and the ESP kids track her down at her grandpa's mansion. Yoshihisa reveals his feelings for her, and to make things even sunnier, we also get a surprise visit from Hiyori Moritani, the girl who was previously bullying Haruka. She's ready to bury the hatchet, and even joins the ESP club! Yeah! So now everything is hunky-dory, everyone gets along, and all is forgiven. Haruka and Yoshihisa are well on their way to an adorable high school romance, while the former uses her powers to read his pervy thoughts.

What we got was a total 180. Kotoura-san has always had its funny moments, thanks to Yoshihisa and the ESP club, but it's also always had a really serious side to it. You don't show a girl being abandoned by her parents, screamed at by strange old ladies in the rain, and ostracized at school, only to conveniently forget any of that ever really happened. Don't get me wrong—post-disappearance Kotoura-san is wacky and fun, but it's a vastly different show than pre-disappearance Kotoura-san. If I had only been watching post-disappearance Kotoura-san the whole time, I'd be plenty happy enjoying all the characters and their goofy interactions. As it is, though, I'm very aware of how dramatically the tone changed, and it's incredibly distracting. It feels like a different show.

I like all the characters enough that I'm having a decent time with the current iteration of the series, but I was pretty baffled by the last few episodes. Now that I've had a chance to readjust my expectations, I'm curious to see how this show will handle the next couple of episodes.

#10 - Love Live! School Idol Project [ep. 4-7]

Love Live! School Idol is scrappy and adorable, and a little bit ridiculous. For a show about a bunch of gals who want to be homegrown, amateur idols though, it works. As Honoka says, “We're not good enough to be professional idols, but we could be school idols.” That's part of the charm of this whole silly project. It's mostly about the girls having a ton of fun with each other, and living out their personal dreams of singing and dancing on stage, and making others smile. Would they ever make it in the big city? Nah. But schoolyard fame—and a little bit of internet fame—is enough for them.

Sure, considering the songs are professionally recorded by vocally trained voice actresses, and the animation is rotoscoped using professionally choreographed dancers, it's a little hard to distinguish between “school idols” and real idols, but there are plenty of characters who will remind viewers that what µs is up to is child's play. No one is more upset than student council president Eri, who apparently has a real reason to be so against their idol club. As it turns out, she used to be a pretty darned good ballerina (of course), and she can't stand the idea of the girls flitting around on stage, making a laughing stock of the school.

As with most Friendship Solves Everything shows, though, everyone eventually gets folded into the Idol Club. It's only a matter of time before even Eri dons a short ruffled skirt. Until then, our trio of peppy gals has swelled to seven, and it's charming to see them practicing their little hearts out. This show isn't terribly deep, but it's really heartwarming, and it's a fun way to wind down every week.

#11 - Problem Children Are Coming From Another World, Aren't They? [ep. 4-6]

I really enjoy Problem children are coming from another world, aren't they?, but it is a little sloppy. It sweeps a whole lot of everything under the rug, all the way from the gift game system, to Izayoi, whose “unknown” abilities are so unstoppable that he can defeat gods with a single punch. An entire episode was devoted to a god beating his chest over how strong he and his Demon Lord were, only to have Izayoi just step up and punch the bad guy into oblivion. Sure, he's got an “unknown” power, but he shouldn't be Superman. If there's absolutely nothing that can stop him, then what makes him interesting as a character?

Previously, I was pretty fascinated by all three of the problem children and their powers (especially the girl who can talk to animals), but it's looking more and more like the Izayoi Show. Not only is he pretty much invincible, and can apparently defeat anything with a pulse, everyone is also always gushing over how surprisingly smart he is, and how he's such a great dude. Considering we don't really know anything (still) about any of the characters, other than their fighting abilities, I'm not so sold on this. Until I'm given a reason to like him, or even know anything about his past, his weaknesses, or his motivations, it just feels like empty hero worship. How can we connect with a character we know nothing about?

I like Problem children are coming from another world, aren't they? for its fun locations and backgrounds, but it still feels really shallow to me. I'm hoping that in the next few episodes, it actually gives me a reason to open up to the characters and learn a little more about them.

#12 - From the New World [ep. 17-20]

Here's what I've been struggling with for twenty episodes: I don't care about the Monster Rats. I didn't care about them in the first season, and I don't care about them now. Every time they fight, I think to myself, "Gee, why am I watching this," and I feel that same way now. I just don't find them as interesting as the human characters, because what drew me to From the New World in the first place was this crazy, messed up human society that the characters grew up in. That False Minoshiro episode was the first time I became sucked into their mad, mad world, and since then, I've been looking for that same hook.

There are brief moments in From the New World where that darkness takes the spotlight. We saw it in those episodes with Shun, and we see it even now in the Monster Rat war with the implication that a human is behind all of the devastation and attacks. What I want, though, is more of it. I want the human side of things. I feel like the weirdness of this series is diluted by the Monster Rats, because while monsters and creatures are always kind of neat and cool, what makes this series unique is this sterile, dystopic society that kills its own children. That should be the focus of the show... not these rats.

From the New World is like being in that one relationship where you know you're kind of sick of the other person, but you can't bring yourself to break up.

#13 - Pet Girl of Sakurasou [ep. 16-19]

Much like the characters, Pet Girl of Sakurasou has grown a lot over the past one and a half seasons. Along the way, though, it's lost a lot of its charm, and much of its steam. Whereas there was once a time where all the characters were bolstering each other in their dreams, learning a lot about each other and themselves, and presenting us with a beautiful allegory of maturing into an adult… now it's just kind of… blasé. It's like watching a sports movie after the high school team's already won the state championship. Everyone's already kind of moved on. Sorata is finally on his way to realizing his dreams of becoming a video game developer, Mashiro is learning how to take care of herself and handle a flourishing career, Jin got into the school of his choice. The list goes on. Everyone's lives are going well, and so without the conflict that pockmarked the first season, it's just not as interesting. I've been watching this show for 19 episodes now, and I feel like I have to keep continuing, but I'm definitely not as engaged as I once was.

#14 - Da Capo III [ep. 4-7

I'm about one episode away from dropping Da Capo III. All I want, all I want, is a teeny, tiny morsel of information about Sakura and that damned magical cherry blossom tree. That's it. That's the only reason I'm watching this show. I want to know if the tree is magical, I want to know if that girl is one of those supernatural moe visual novel aberrations, and I want to know why people got emails from the past. Is that so much to ask for? I don't care which girl (spoiler alert: all of them) has a crush on What's His Face. I don't care how many times he accidentally sees Girl A in her underwear, or if he accidentally makes Girl B blush by saying a misunderstanding about Girl C, or goes on a date with Girl D (where they literally walk by a bridal store called Marriage), or eats a hamburger with Girl E, or whatever. If I was in front of my computer, playing a visual novel, yeah maybe I'd want to see where each relationship takes me, but when I'm watching an anime, in which I can't Choose My Own Adventure, I don't want any of this. It's a waste of time.

All I want is to know about the damned tree, which is the entire hook that got me watching this show. Yeah, all the girls are super cute and adorable, but their shallow interaction with What's His Name just aren't getting me through this. Please just give me something to keep going on.

#15 - Bakumatsu Gijinden Roman [ep. 4-7]

The problem with having character designs by Monkey Punch is that, even though Bakamatsu Gijinden Roman isn't Lupin III, I keep expecting it to be Lupin III. And because of that, I keep perpetually being disappointed. It's not entirely fair, but it is affecting my viewing experience negatively. It doesn't help, either, that almost all of the main characters look like Bizarro World versions of the Lupin III cast.

It also doesn't help that the entire series is based off a gambling game, so it lacks structure and a strong narrative. Whereas the show started off with Roman playing the role of a Bakamatsu-era Robin Hood, it quickly devolved into a hijinks show. Every episode basically just sets up a new mission, and then wackiness ensues. Sometimes it's a treasure-finding mission where the gold ends up being a giant robo-house. Sometimes it's a rescue mission that involves hallucinogens and gigantic perverts on boats. But regardless of the setup, Roman ends up running around like a goofball, crazy stuff happens, and then his sister chastises him about not bringing home any money. Even the revelation about Okuni's real identity and her past—while interesting—isn't enough to overcome the fact that Bakumatsu Gijinden Roman feels like an aimless madcap romp.

Visually, this series has a lot going for it. The setting is interesting, the loud colors are fun, and the anachronism of the super armor and the robo-houses and everything else is neat. That's… kind of it, though. The actual missions are rarely interesting enough to sustain the runtime of an entire episode, and even with the inklings of a couple underlying story threads, Bakamatsu Gijinden Roman feels scattered and trivial. This is a series I'm going to have to put on the shelf for later, either when the entire show finishes its TV run, or when it gets released stateside.

#16 - Vividred Operation [ep. 3-6]

Vividred feels a bit like that old comedy gag where some kind of professional is missing or otherwise incapacitated, and the misfit heroes have to fill in and try to do that person's job, usually to hilarious results. Only, in this case, the professionals are those who make anime, and the misfits are the Vividred folks who wandered in and thought they could make an anime by following a poorly-drawn diagram. They have the right ingredients for a commercially viable product—magical girls, animal mascots, beach episodes, giant monsters—but they don't know how to combine the ingredients, and they certainly don't know what heat to set the oven at. Everything feels like it's haphazardly tossed together, and none of the fan fodder is strung together by anything substantial.

Here's the curious thing—early on in the series, Ferret Grandpa says to Akane, “Hey! Here's this magic key I made you! And one for your friend! These are the only two that exist in this world, and only you two can use them, because you're the bestest of friends.” I'm not 100% sure that's exactly what the line was, verbatim, but it was pretty close. So imagine my surprise when I discover that you can basically will more copies of these keys to exist, simply by believing in friendship or whatever. Even if you've just met that gal for the first time. By the end of the fourth episode, there are not two, but FOUR Vivids. All have different colors, but all can “dock” with Akane to form some super Vivid[color] magical girl, because I guess the selection criteria for being a magical girl isn't so stringent after all. Oh, and because the show needs more cute gals, or whatever, there's also this girl who can control the Alone, because you know.

Look, anime is really infamous for pilots who can magically pilot sophisticated robots just by jumping into the cockpit, and magical girls who can excel without training, but Vividred Operation is especially egregious in this category. It was silly enough when Akane's best friend thought, “Yeah, hey, I'm totally gonna sacrifice my life and lunge at these monsters with my magic hammer,” but then when the third girl and the fourth girl jumped right into it too, it became ludicrous. These are girls who weren't even friends with Akane a day ago, and suddenly they're okay with fighting killer aliens and merging with her. At some point, Ferret Grandpa exclaims, “I can't believe [some girl] picked up on this so quickly!” but he doesn't realize that all of the girls have done so.

For the most part, I forgive most of this as generic, silly anime stuff. We've all been around the anime block enough times to not get surprised when ridiculous magical girl stuff like this happens. What pushed me over the edge was the beach episode. This episode was written by people who have never watched a beach episode before, and have only heard through the grapevine that such things exist. At some point, one of the girls (Akane, I think?) bends over, and she's got a button on her swimsuit that says, “Do Not Push.” So of course, someone pushes it. And her suit BALLOONS into this giant, Violet Beauregarde sphere, at which point the other girls assume it's a tent. Of course! What else could it be! So they dive under, and suddenly, eek! She's naked underneath!

Stop, stop, stop. This is ridiculous. This entire episode is a slap in the face of anime fans. I mean, if you're going to have a fanservice episode, at least make it reasonable and interesting. Just having bikinis and squishy boobs doesn't make it good. Fanservice without purpose is just a waste of digital paint. The bizarre training scenario that Ferret Grandpa puts the girls in didn't even merit existence, because up until now, we have only been led to believe that the girls are magically perfect at fighting. It's a mind-numbingly stupid episode, and it was the last nail in the coffin for me. I can't watch this show anymore.


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